Jimmy Butler knew his team faced long odds on Sunday. Coming off a hard-fought Saturday night loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Chicago Bulls not only had to play the second game of a back-to-back in L.A. against the resurgent Los Angeles Lakers, but also had to do so without Dwyane Wade, the team’s second-leading scorer, who was in line for a night off after logging 36 minutes against the Clips.
So Jimmy Butler straightened his shoulders and fixed his eyes on Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg.
“Coach,” Butler said, “I’m going for 40 points tonight.”
Let it never be said that Jimmy Butler is not a man of his word.
After calling his shot, Butler went out and went yard, scoring 40 on the button — 14-for-23 from the field, 12-for-14 from the free throw line and zero 3-pointers, a.k.a. The Full DeRozan — to bring the Bulls back from a 10-point deficit for a 118-110 win at Staples Center on Sunday. Butler also added seven rebounds, six assists and a steal in his team-high 40 minutes of floor time, and came up huge with a high-scoring game in the balance after intermission, scoring or assisting on 11 of 15 Chicago points in a 15-2 mid-third-quarter run that put the Bulls on top for good.
The game continued a stellar start to the season for Butler, who has allayed preseason concerns about how Chicago’s “Three Alphas” — Butler, Wade and point guard Rajon Rondo — would fit together and establish a pecking order by making it inarguable that he’s not only the best player on the team, but one of the very best in the league.
Through 14 games, Butler’s playing the most best offensive ball of his career, averaging a career-high 25.1 points per game despite playing fewer minutes a night (35.3) than he has since becoming a full-time starter in 2013. What’s interesting is that, while Butler has evolved into Chicago’s clear No. 1 offensive option, he hasn’t done so by dominating the ball to a Hardenian or Westbrookian level.
Butler’s total per-game time of possession is the same this year as it was last year, according to the NBA’s SportVU player tracking data. His touches per game are actually down a bit year-over-year. And while he’s “using” a career-high share of Chicago’s offensive possessions — meaning he’s finishing more of the Bulls’ plays with a shot taken, a foul drawn or a turnover committed — he’s not coughing the ball up more frequently (his turnover percentage is actually a tick lower than it was last year). Basically, he’s just doing way more with the ball when he has it.
Thus far, Butler has posted career-best shooting percentages across the board. He has helped provide space and spark for a Bulls attack that ranks eighth in offensive efficiency by drilling nearly 42 percent of his 3-pointers, and helped Chicago generate easy points as often as possible by getting to the charity stripe 9.5 times a contest and knocking down nearly 89 percent of his foul shots. He’s also continuing to serve as a critical secondary playmaker for Hoiberg’s club, chipping in 4.1 assists per game, and continuing to play a pivotal defensive role by disrupting possessions (tied for 12th in the league in deflections per game), stalling them (continuing to rank among the league’s stingiest defenders on isolation plays and against pick-and-roll ball-handlers) and ending them (ninth in the NBA in total steals).
So what happens when an All-Star shooting guard takes a significant leap in offensive efficiency while maintaining his top-shelf defensive work? Well, quiet as it’s kept, you might get an MVP candidate.
The advanced stats love Butler right now. He’s tied for second in the NBA in win shares, ranks third in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus metric, fourth in Value Over Replacement Player, fifth (among players who’ve played enough minutes to qualify) in Box Plus/Minus and sixth (again, with the minutes caveat) in Player Efficiency Rating. Even those top-10 rankings, though, might undersell what Butler’s bringing to the table these days … at least, according to one source very familiar with Butler’s thinking. From Vincent Goodwill of Comcast SportsNet Chicago:
[Butler] was asked about being ranked in the Top 10 of NBA players this season, and wasn’t shy about it.
“Do I dispute it? No. Do I believe it? Of course,” said Butler to CSNChicago.com […] “I think you can ask people we have on this team, I walk around and say certain things I really mean.”
“I’m not gonna tell you exactly what I say but I think you know what I’m talking about,” Butler said. “I don’t talk about it in public. But between these guys, they know how I feel, they know the way I go about the game and how I love it and how I love being better. I place myself where I place it and I hope my game continues to speak.”
The quote Butler didn’t want to say but one that has been heard by teammates more than a few times: “I’m the best (bleeping) player in the world.”
[Follow Dunks Don’t Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
There are plenty of players and observers who’d dispute that, of course. If Butler continues to produce like this in leading the 9-5 Bulls, though, he might just turn some skeptics into believers. From ESPN’s Nick Friedell:
“He is playing with a tremendous amount of confidence, and that’s where it starts,” Hoiberg said. “If you believe you can do it, that’s a pretty good place to start. Jimmy thinks every time he steps on the floor he’s the best player out there, and more often than not he’s right. That’s a big thing is the confidence and the belief in yourself, and he definitely has that.” […]
“Before the game, before the ball jumped up, he came to me [and] just said, ‘Come on, let’s get it done,’ ” Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. “I saw it in his eyes, the desperation and understanding that we got to win this game. This is a big game for us, especially on a back-to-back after losing a tough one which we thought we should have won [Saturday] night, so I saw it in his eyes. He was intense, [Rajon] Rondo was intense, but he’s just showing more leadership day by day.”
Some lead with words; others lead by example. On Sunday, Jimmy Butler did both, talking a big game and backing it up.
“I just felt like that was what my team was going to need from me, to tell you the truth,” Butler said. “[…] I work so hard in the summer. I know what I am capable of.”
And, as a result, the rest of us are learning, too.
More NBA coverage:
– – – – – – –